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Two Ways Science Fiction Films Portray the Human Body

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Two Ways Science Fiction Films Portray the Human Body

Bodies are present in almost all films, but not all films are committed to representing them. Science fiction is often considered a genre that has the least to do with bodies, but there are at least two exceptions: Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg. The works of these two directors provide an interesting contrast in the level of approach to the representation of human body in science fiction films. I will attempt to illustrate this below.

Paul Verhoeven's science-fiction action films consistently feature agile bodies: In Total Recall, the amnesiac agent's body instinctively kills the pursuers; in Starship Troopers, young people flaunt their muscles and prosthetics on the football field, in military camps, and finally, on the battlefield; in Hollow Man, the fallen scientist, like all supervillains, converts accidental bodily harm into newfound physical power. Yet, surpassing even the agility of the characters' movements is the fluidity of the camera's motion, effortlessly traversing scenes aided by the Steadicam, tracing powerful and graceful arcs that intersect with the trajectories of the bodies.

El vengador del futuro
Invasión (Starship Troopers)
El hombre sin sombra

This unquestionably caters to the visual appetite, yet it disregards the audience's more nuanced and intricate perception of these bodies amidst the complete dominance of visual rhythm. There is no time for us to see the functionality of the characters' bodies; instead, we are swiftly carried away to the next fleeting moment of action. The body itself is emptied, leaving only a semblance of enchanting or acrobatic movements to endlessly replicate and perpetuate -- a performance that offers no respite for immersion, akin to the visual gratification commonly found in Hollywood's major productions. However, let's not overlook that Verhoeven operates as both a genre manipulator and an ironist dissecting entire systems from within. Similar to his characters, he endeavors to achieve a kind of double-agent mission: subtly dispensing this law of visual pleasure while exposing the underlying symptoms through tiny shifts in tone. Consequently, the film's potential shortcomings are seized upon as deliberate deconstructions of its own ideology: the absence of body points to the inherent vacuity and absurdity of the spirit that drive them -- masculinity, the American dream, militaristic fervor.

El vengador del futuro

In contrast to Verhoeven, Cronenberg's films consistently utilize the body as the foundation of his science fiction imagination. For Cronenberg, "body horror" transcends mere spectacle, offering a profound exploration of the characters' inner turmoil manifested in corporeal form: the teratoma in The Brood, the twins in Dead Ringers and the insect typewriter in Naked Lunch all serve as bodily manifestations of the psychological afflictions. The relationship between the body and the psyche serves as a potent language for symbolic expression, resulting in the elaborate labyrinths of metaphors in nearly every one of Cronenberg’s films. In his early works, spanning from Rabid to Scanners to Videodrome, Cronenberg presents a raw amalgamation of essayistic composition and low-budget horror. While brimming with innovative concepts, these films often lack perceptual fluidity, rendering their bodily spectacles predominantly symbolic. The occasional moments of bodily materiality arise from the handcrafted quality of the prosthetic makeup and props, a technique shared with cult movie auteurs such as Carpenter, Hopper, and Romero. However, from the 1990s onward, Cronenberg embraced a more contemplative, meticulous approach of mise-en-scene. Consequently, the monstrous bodies depicted in his films transcend mere spectacle or allegory, demanding a heightened sensitivity from viewers and offering a more immersive material experience in return.

Cromosoma 3

Take, for instance, eXistenZ, where the conventional plastic game consoles are replaced by a piece of animate flesh, accessed by connecting it to an interface on the human spine. While there's an obvious metaphorical layer here, one can opt to forgo textual interpretation and instead focus on the intimate interactions between the male and female protagonists each time they enter the game, their contented moans upon waking, and the visceral experience of gnawing on strange creature bones during the game, leaving traces of soup and residue around their lips and hands, accompanied by the sounds of chewing and swallowing -- all meticulously depicted, collectively crafting an intimate, almost sensual ambiance. Similarly, in Crash, the camera not only captures numerous close-ups of the characters' skin and limbs but also lingers on the bodies of the machines with a palpable sense of desire and emotion, casting a lustful gleam upon the metallic shells of vehicles and the leg brace of a disabled woman. This meticulous way of mise-en-scene frames the act of crashing cars as a new form of sexual expression. In Crimes of the Future, the notion of "new sex" transitions from crashes to surgeries, but the emphasis on the subtle senses of bodies remains constant.

eXistenZ

In the realm of science fiction films, the representation of bodies holds a profound significance beyond mere visual appeal or narrative device. It serves as a conduit for exploring the boundaries of human existence, confronting audiences with questions about the nature of identity, agency, and the relationship between mind and body. Sci-fi cinema often grapples with themes of technological advancement, societal evolution, and the potential consequences of scientific innovation. By foregrounding the human body within these narratives, filmmakers invite audiences to contemplate the implications of these advancements on our physical selves. Moreover, the representation of bodies in sci-fi films serves as a reflection of contemporary anxieties, desires, and cultural preoccupations. Whether through the sleek, augmented bodies of Verhoeven's characters or the grotesque transformations in Cronenberg's work, these films offer a canvas for exploring societal norms, fears, and aspirations in a speculative context. Additionally, the portrayal of bodies in sci-fi films serves to blur the boundaries between the familiar and the unknown, inviting viewers to confront the uncanny and the extraordinary. Ultimately, by foregrounding the human body in their narratives, sci-fi filmmakers provoke audiences to reflect on the essence of humanity itself, challenging us to consider what it means to be human in an ever-changing world shaped by technology, ideology, and the inexorable march of time. Thus, the representation of bodies in sci-fi films emerges as a crucial and thought-provoking aspect of the genre, offering a window into our collective hopes, fears, and dreams for the future.


wirtten by ANNI


THE DISSIDENTS are a collective of cinephiles dedicated to articulate our perspectives on cinema through writing and other means. We believe that the assessments of films should be determined by individuals instead of academic institutions. We prioritize powerful statements over impartial viewpoints, and the responsibility to criticize over the right to praise. We do not acknowledge the hierarchy between appreciators and creators or between enthusiasts and insiders. We must define and defend our own cinema.

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